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Jewish World Review May 5, 2004 / 14 Iyar, 5764

Roger Simon

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Chief strategist for Bush | Matthew Dowd, 42, works in an anonymous, red-brick high-rise in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, a building that bears no hint on the outside that it houses the George W. Bush re-election campaign on the inside.

Through the glass doors there is the usual security — friendly guards with large sidearms — and bevies of young and earnest campaign workers dressed in strict business attire: ties knotted, slacks pressed. With the exception, that is, of Matthew Dowd.

Dowd is the campaign's chief strategist and he is dressed this day as if he were about to attend a picnic. He is wearing a dark, shapeless sweater and dark washpants. He can't wait for the election to be over so he can get back to his home in Austin, Texas, and he seems to be dressing in anticipation of that day.

He is sitting in a small, windowless conference room that has a smiling, color picture of Laura Bush on one wall and a whiteboard that is scrawled with an unintelligible formula, no doubt for a Bush victory on Nov. 2, on the other.

"The long-term outlook is good," Dowd says. "We've made it harder for Kerry to convey a message about the president to the public. They want to drive our approval down. But we've cut his net positives in half."

This is the world that Dowd lives in, the world of political polling: approval ratings, favorable/unfavorable ratings and right-tracks/wrong-tracks.

Both campaigns seek not just to define their own candidate, but to define their opponent. From the Bush campaign's point of view it goes something like: The president is a strong, wartime leader, who will safeguard the economy and the homeland and John Kerry is a flip-flopper, a waffler and a liar.

Just as the Bush campaign succeeded to a certain extent in portraying Al Gore as a fabricator in 2000 (Did he really invent the Internet?), it now believes it is succeeding in portraying Kerry the same way.

The importance of this is obvious: If you can't believe Kerry about his Vietnam service (Did he really throw away his medals?) then you can't believe him about George W. Bush, either.

"Voters filter out what Kerry says about the president, because they don't trust Kerry," Dowd says.

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While Dowd is quick to not take full credit for this — "Kerry has done a lot to himself," he says, "saying and doing things then re-enforce negative preconceptions" — there is no doubt the Bush campaign has played a role in shaping a public perceptions about Kerry.

Yet it is hard to detect any air of great exuberance when one talks to Bush's people. They believe he will win, but nobody is predicting a landslide. Unless you re-define landslide.

"A 4-5 point victory on Election Day would be a landslide for the kind of country we are in today," Dowd says."If the election were held today, it would be a Bush victory by a couple of points, 51-49."

The Democrats say this is nonsense and point to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, in which only 36 percent of those interviewed believed the country was on the right track while 55 percent believed it was on the wrong track.

Dowd is not worried by this, however. He has his own polls. And his own strategy. "The race is close and will remain close due to the divided and polarized nature of the country," he says. "You will get 45-46 percent of the vote no matter what you are for or against. This is not like the Reagan years when you had 20 percent of the vote you could move. Today, there is about 8 percent you can move. Our range is very small. We have two goals: Motivate our base on Election Day and get a share of the swing vote."

Though just who makes up the swing vote in America is a matter of some disagreement, Dowd identifies it as three groups: Suburban married working women; younger working-class males; and Hispanics.

He expects these groups to swing back and forth as the months proceed — giving Kerry a boost in the polls after the Democratic National Convention in late July and then giving Bush a boost after the Republican National Convention in late August. "Then it is 60 days to the finish," he says. ("I have 10 brothers and sisters and they split about the way the country does," Dowd, a former Democrat, once said. "On any given day it is 50-50.")

The number that Dowd watches closely is the president's job approval rating. "The incumbent president usually gets a vote right at his approval rating," Dowd says. "If we are at a 51-52 approval (on Election Day), we will win by 1 or 2 points. If the president is at a 49 percent approval, he will get 50 percent of the vote, especially with a third-party candidate in the race."

The most recent Gallup Poll shows Bush with a 52 percent approval rating, the ABC News/Washington Post poll has him at 51 percent, the Pew Research Center poll has him at 48 percent and the CBS New/New York Times poll released last week has him at 46 percent. As the Times explained, however, "In statistical terms, these are virtually the same."

Which ought to keep things interesting. So interesting, in fact, might we not have another election where the winner is not known weeks after Election Day?

"We are all watching that," Dowd says. "Closely."

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